Syro Malabar Community celebrates tenth anniversary since its inception in the UK
By Alison Rebello
Newcastle Nov 10: The Syro Malabar community completed ten years of its existence in the tenth month of October 2016, from its humble beginnings way back in October 2006.
Within the space of 10 years the Syro Malabar community has established itself as a diverse and deep-rooted community not only in the North East of England but more or less, across the whole of United Kingdom. The Syro Malabar Community in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle(H&N) has three Mass centres in Newcastle, Sunderland and Darlington and service taking place once every two months in Berwick upon Tweed.
It is indeed fitting that as we celebrate the 10th anniversary we have a newly erected Eparchy of Preston for the Syro Malabar faithful with a new Bishop. This marks the beginning of a new chapter for the community in the British Isles.
Alison Rebello takes a look at the development of Syro Malabar community in the Diocese of H& N and across the UK. At a time when much attention is focussed upon the decline in the influence of the Church in modern life, it represents an optimistic perspective on how one community is reaping the rewards of its commitment to a strong faith. Ten points to focus on the tenth anniversary:
1 First Priests (Fr George Kavalam and Fr Saji Thottathil)- Both priests came to H & N diocese as priests to serve the diocese but they became increasingly aware of the needs of the Syro Malabar community and have helped raise the profile of the community. They have organised Holy Mass, initiated family prayer units, house visits, and brought many retreats to meet the spiritual needs of the congregation.
They began to say Mass in Newcastle and Sunderland and soon the need for Mass centres in Darlington came up with request from Berwick upon Tweed for Mass pouring in, as well. As soon as the word spread around these priests were also approached by the communities in Middlesbrough, York, North Allerton, Scunthorpe and other nearby places, to celebrate Mass for them.
In 2009 Fr George went back to India and since then Fr Saji has been the lone Malayalee priest looking after the needs of the community in the North East as well as serving the wider community as volunteer hospital chaplain and helping the South Tyneside deanery of St Aidan and St Gregory, where he serves now. Interestingly, it was in St Mary’s and St Matthew’s Jarrow where Fr George was parish priest before he left for India and that is where Fr Saji now serves as parish priest.
2 Feast Day celebrations– Since the very beginning of their arrival the Syro Malabar community have shown their deep-rooted faith in all spheres of life. In Newcastle the celebration of the patron saint of India- St Thomas has been the biggest celebration of the year, in Sunderland the community has been celebrating the feast of St Alphonsa, since 2008 when she was canonised and in Darlington the community has been celebrating the feast of St Augustine for the past 5 years, in the church of the same name, where they gather for community worship. In Newcastle and Sunderland Bishop Kevin Dunn and later Bishop Seamus Cunningham have graced the celebrations and blessed the community with their whole hearted support in all our celebrations. Famous Malayalam singers MG Markose, Biju Narayanan and Deepu Kaithapuram have been part of the annual celebration in the North East and entertained the audience.
3 Catechism, Family Prayer units and charitable works- The leaders of the community have been actively teaching Catechism to its young pupils based on the books prescribed by the Syro Malabar Synod. Annual events to celebrate their success has been organised since 2011 and prizes and awards have been given to all pupils attending it.
There are regular Family prayers and Rosaries being said in the Wards set up in each of the communities. In many houses there are regular 24 hour Rosary recitations for various intentions, on a regular basis. In excess of £20000 have been raised for various charitable and needy individual causes, and distributed by the Syro Malabar faithful of the diocese.
4 World Renowned Retreat in H&N– We have heard words of wisdom and been blessed by most of the leading preachers from the community come to the diocese and indeed in many parts of the country and not only giving retreats but visiting us at home and having a meal or two, which is a rarity in India.
In the course of the decade we have seen Fr Matthew Naickomparambil, Fr George Panackal, Fr Matthew Elavumkal, Fr Augustine Mundackatt, Fr John F Cheriavely and Fr Kuriakose Punnolil (Vincentian priests from Divine Retreat Centre, Potta), Fr Dominic Valamnal, Fr Kurian Karickal, Fr Joseph Puthenpurackal, Fr Joseph Kandathiparampil, Fr Davis Chiramel, Fr Shaji Thumpechirayil, Fr Joseph Vayalil, Fr Prashant, Fr Soji Olickal, Fr Cyril Edamana and many other priests and brothers giving retreat.
5 Visiting Archbishops, Bishops and Priests– We have been blessed with Papal Nuncio of Zimbabwe Archbishop George Kocherry gracing the feast day celebration of St Thomas in 2010, who is currently the Papal Nuncio to Bangladesh.
Apart from him, we have had visits from Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Thoomkuzhy of Thrissur, Archbishop Joseph Perumthottam of Changanacherry, Archbishop George Njaralakatt of Tellicherry, Bishop Emeritus Gratian Mundadan of Bijnor, Bishop Sebastian Vadakel of Ujjain, Bishop Joseph Arumachadath of Bhadravathi, , Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Pandarasseril of Kottayam who was the chief guest at the first St Thomas feast day celebration in Newcastle, and the newly appointed Bishop of the Eparchy of Great Britain Joseph Srampickal. Besides them, over 25 Malayalee priests with family connections and occasional trips to North East have joined communities in saying Mass and praying with us together.
6 Relics- We have been fortunate to obtain the Relic of the first male Syro Malabar community St Chavara Kuriakose Elias who was canonised in November 2014. It has its permanent abode in St Roberts Church, Fenham where we start our monthly Mass on the last Sunday of every month with a novena dedicated to him.
As for other Indian saints who have been canonised in the space of these ten years St Alphonsa’s relic has been placed in St Alphonsa Cathedral in Preston, renamed after her. She is the first native Syro Malabar saint to be canonised in October 2008. The relic of recently canonised St Teresa of Kolkata is with the Sisters of Charity in Elswick, Newcastle and also in St Anthony and Our Lady of Mercy Church in Hull.
7 Retreat Centres established– Spiritual retreat is a big part of the life of the Syro Malabar community where ever they go and settle. And to this end, the world famous retreat givers from Kerala, the Divine Retreat Centre has made its presence felt in UK.
They have taken over the Carmel Sisters Convent in Darlington and named it Carmel Divine Retreat Centre besides taking over St Augustine’s Abbey in Ramsgate and transforming it as Divine Retreat Centre, Ramsgate with regular ongoing retreats in both places. In Birmingham the Sehion UK Ministries have established a Retreat Centre with a convention being held every second Saturday of the month and attended by many from around the country.
They have extensive work with children known as School of Evangelisation and Kids for Kingdom, perpetual adoration and street ministry. Even Shalom Ministries based in Sheffield have begun their ministry through visual and print media like Shalom TV, Sunday Shalom newspaper, Shalom Tidings magazine in English and organising Shalom Festival, retreat and conferences regularly.
8 Contribution of Syro Malabar Laity– Several lay persons have gone on to become active participants in the wider church community by becoming Readers, Eucharistic Ministers, members of the parish council, bidding prayer writers, Catechists, School Governors and altar servers, besides working in youth council, music ministry and generally helping the local church in various activities that run throughout the year.
Although Eucharistic ministers and female altar servers are yet to make their official debut in Syro Malabar Churches but they have been widely embraced and encouraged by the Malayalee priests in the UK showing solidarity with the universal church. This has helped the wider community in terms of support from the Malayalee ethnic minority community in many areas of the church’s functioning.
Two members of the community were also part of 507 people who read parts of the full Bible from Genesis to Revelation in Durham Cathedral, as part of the ecumenical Big Read programme organised by Church of England in 2010.
9 Celebration of Diversity- The members of the Syro Malabar community have actively participated in the diocesan event Many Cultures One Church initiated by the Bishop which ran for three years consecutively. This event brought together the ethnic minority communities of India, Africa, Philippines and Sri Lanka together for a joint annual worship and sharing the table with food from their countries.
It has been a successful event and since then many Churches have started organising their own international mass and food day to celebrate diversity within their own communities. Different Christian denominations of Malayalees took part in Ecumenical Christmas Celebrations Carol which is another celebration of diversity in the North East.
10 Syro Malabar Bishop Joseph Srampickal– As we celebrate the 10th year of our existence in the diocese and elsewhere, the Syro Malabar Church in UK received a surprise gift of the erection of Syro Malabar Eparchy of Great Britain in Preston by Pope Francis with Bishop Joseph Srampickal installed as its first Bishop.
What more could the community ask for, than to be shepherded by one of its own Bishop. Incidentally he was ordained and installed as the Bishop on 9th October. What a perfect end to the decade in October, or rather a promising start for the next decade.
The author has been the Lay Coordinator of the Syro Malabar Newcastle Mass Centre for the first eight years, a member of the Syro Malabar North East Core Group until 2014 and the first Head of Catechism of St Thomas Catechetical Sunday School in Newcastle.